For breastfeeding mothers, mastitis and blocked ducts can spell discomfort, pain, and frustration. These conditions send many moms seeking answers about causes, solutions, and the path to healing. By understanding the symptoms, getting properly diagnosed, and utilizing both medical treatments and at-home remedies, it is possible to find relief and continue one’s breastfeeding journey. This article explores the realities of mastitis and blocked ducts so that mothers can navigate the discomfort and come out the other side, armed with knowledge and hope.
What are Mastitis and Blocked Ducts?
Mastitis refers to inflammation of the breast tissue which can arise from infection, blocked ducts, or mechanical injury to the breast. It often comes on suddenly and causes swelling, warmth, redness, and pain in the affected breast. Other flu-like symptoms may accompany mastitis like fever, chills, fatigue, and body aches. In some cases, pus or blood-tinged discharge occurs from the nipple. Mastitis can happen in one or both breasts.
Blocked ducts occur when a milk duct in the breast becomes plugged, usually with thickened milk. This prevents the normal flow of breast milk. A blocked duct causes localized pain and swelling, sometimes with a tiny, hard lump felt in that area of the breast. Redness and warmth may also occur. A blocked duct can progress to a breast infection if bacteria enter the stagnant milk in the plugged duct. So it’s important to address any blocked areas promptly.
What Causes Mastitis and Blocked Ducts?
There are several potential causes of mastitis and blocked ducts:
- Poor breastfeeding latch or positioning: An improper latch prevents efficient milk removal. Milk left stagnating in the breast can cause blocked ducts.
- Engorgement: Becoming overly full between breastfeeding sessions leads to milk backflow and milk stasis inside the breast. This allows bacteria to grow.
- Pressure on the breast: Wearing a tight bra, resting a purse strap across the breast, or a baby’s elbow positioned over the breast during nursing can all impede milk flow.
- Stress: Emotional and physical stress may negatively impact milk release from the breast. Stress can also lower immunity, making infection more likely.
- Fatigue: Exhaustion, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and dehydration can decrease milk production while allowing milk and bacteria to build up inside the breast.
- Damage to nipples or breasts: Cuts, cracks, blisters, blebs, or wounds on the nipple or anywhere on the breast make it easier for bacteria to enter and infect the tissue.
- Sudden drop in feedings or stopping breastfeeding: An abrupt reduction in breast stimulation and milk removal can lead to engorgement and infection. This risk remains up to a month after breastfeeding ceases.
Who Gets Mastitis or Blocked Ducts?
Mastitis and blocked ducts are not always preventable, but certain situations raise a woman’s risk:
- First-time breastfeeding mothers still establishing feeding schedules and positioning techniques
- Mothers who have had mastitis or blocked ducts with past children or breast issues like surgery, trauma, chronic infection, etc.
- Women breastfeeding multiples like twins or triplet sets
- Moms who use a breast pump extensively in addition to nursing
- Mothers with abundant milk supply (oversupply)
- Women who have gone long stretches between nursing sessions or have missed feedings
It’s possible for mastitis or blocked ducts to arise unpredictably in any breastfeeding mother despite thoughtful precautions. But awareness of potential risk factors allows for prompt action at early signs of trouble.
Can Mastitis and Blocked Ducts Be Prevented?
There are proactive measures breastfeeding moms can implement to help avoid mastitis and blocked ducts:
- Maintain proper breast and hand hygiene like washing before and after feedings
- Allow baby to fully drain each breast when nursing
- Ensure proper latch and check breastfeeding position often
- Nurse frequently or pump regularly if away from baby
- Alternate breastfeeding starting positions to drain all ducts
- Avoid tight bras, bras with underwire, or straps pressing into breasts
- Apply warm compresses and massage lumps gently before nursing
- Get enough rest, nutrition, and hydration
Even diligent efforts cannot always prevent mastitis or blocked ducts altogether. But actively working to reduce probable causes lowers risk and empowers mothers to respond promptly at early signs of trouble. Plus, the habits formed to prevent problems also enable faster healing if issues do occur. So focusing on prevention sets mothers and babies up for breastfeeding success.
Signs and Symptoms: Recognizing Trouble
Diagnosing blocked ducts or mastitis begins by recognizing early symptoms and responding quickly. Signs signaling potential problems ahead include:
Blocked Duct Symptoms:
- Tenderness, hard lump, or wedge-shaped engorgement in a specific part of the breast
- Breast fullness, swelling, and pain localized to the plugged duct’s location
- Reddened area visible on the breast skin above the clogged passage
- Milk supply seeming decreased, often mostly affecting one breast – the plugged side
- Sudden fever, often with chills, fatigue, and body aches
- Breast lump, warmth, and redness in a specific spot or all over
- Burning breast pain and general malaise
Often, symptoms first signal merely a blocked duct. But leaving a blockage uncleared allows mastitis to develop. Recurrent plugged ducts in the same area can indicate an underlying cause like fibrocystic breast changes, nipple damage, or incorrect positioning.
Seeking prompt treatment for any potential early issues protects breastfeeding success long-term. Waiting and hoping symptoms resolve independently risks greater difficulty down the road.
If symptoms suggest mastitis or a blocked duct, promptly contact a healthcare provider like a doctor, midwife, lactation consultant, or other breast specialist. Self-diagnosis often works fine for blocked ducts. But recurrent or complex cases accompanied by fever or infection require professional assessment.
During diagnostic exams for blocked ducts or mastitis, the provider asks about:
- Health history, surgeries, chronic issues affecting immunity or infection risk
- Breastfeeding background like latch challenges, nipple pain, pump use, etc.
- Onset, location, duration, and exact symptoms present
Then the examiner physically inspects the breast(s), checks appearance and areas of redness, warmth, swelling or lumps, and assesses pain location and severity. Expressing breast milk analyzes viscosity and appearance. For mastitis with infection, a milk culture helps identify the causative bacteria. Bloodwork checks for markers indicating inflammation or infection.
Based on results, the provider diagnoses simple blocked ducts, infected blocked ducts passing into mastitis, or breast abscess development – a pocket of pus requiring drainage. Correct diagnosis is essential for appropriate treatment selection and timing. Keep communicating with the healthcare team until resolution.
Medical Treatment Options
For mild blocked ducts without infection, at-home remedies sufficiently resolve many cases if employed diligently. Utilize tenacity and patience! But when home strategies fail or mastitis develops, medical treatments help conquer discomfort effectively.
Most mastitis requires antibiotic medicines that penetrate breast tissue and milk ducts powerfully to eliminate infection. Resistance patterns in the local community guide drug choices. Treatment spans at least 10-14 days but extends longer if fever and symptoms don’t substantially improve in the first several days. This ensures fully eradicating persistent bacteria.
For severe or recurrent cases of mastitis or abscess formation, intravenous antibiotics or surgical drainage become necessary. The provider helps navigate best next options if simple measures fail. Keep communicating concerns and changes during treatment.
Sometimes causative factors like damaged skin or tissue structures underlying or contributing to mastitis may need specific correction once infection clears. This helps prevent repeat issues. Discuss the possibility of corrective care with your provider.
Home-Based Comfort Measures
In addition to medical treatment for mastitis, numerous at-home comfort options bring relief alongside antibiotics or when working to clear a blocked duct:
- Apply warm compresses to the breast before nursing or pumping then massage lump firmly downward toward the nipple. Perform gentle breast massage during and after feeding too.
- Improve drainage positions like knee-chest, dangle feeding, or laid-back options that use gravity to empty breasts. Consider switching nursing starting sides each feed.
- Nurse very frequently – at least every 2 hours aiming for 12+ times daily until ducts open and infection clears. Allow baby extra time proportionally more on the affected breast. If separated from baby, pump 8+ times throughout the day. Waking overnight to empty breasts prevents engorgement which further impedes milk flow through damaged tissue.
- Drink ample fluids – water, milk, electrolyte drinks. Limit caffeine which can contribute to duct blockages. Take ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or other analgesics as needed for pain and swelling relief. Use cooler packs between feedings to reduce inflammation.
- Breastfeed in warm baths allowing a shallow milk bath for nipples/breasts. Use an electric or manual pump briefly if pre-feed warming doesn’t sufficiently soften the breast. Excess pumping risks exacerbating inflammation.
- Apply homemade pastes of grated raw potato or chopped cabbage leaves to engorged areas then wrap breasts with plastic wrap and a towel/heating pad for 20 minutes pre-nursing. Rinse before feeding baby. These veg containchemicals that gently help soften breast tissue.
Diligently employing these methods stimulates milk ejection reflexes, opens blocked ducts, maximizes milk drainage, reduces engorgement, and helps clear infection alongside medical treatments. Keep trying different options and combinations until hitting the right practices that provide relief. Then continue those strategies until mastitis, infection, and blocked ducts fully resolve.
Road to Recovery
Navigating breast challenges like recurrent blocked ducts or mastitis often requires tenacity combined with tenderness toward oneself. Maintaining perspective helps overcome frustration when the way forward entails discomfort. Remember difficult breastfeeding periods pass. Set small goals to not become overwhelmed. Celebrate tiny triumphs and drown out self-criticism.
- Expect healing to take 10-14 days at minimum – often longer. Improvement follows a nonlinear path. Prepare for ups and downs.
- Monitor fever duration, infection symptoms, breast appearance, and pain levels to gauge healing. Mark observable improvements.
- Don’t quit nursing! Maintaining milk removal remains imperative despite discomfort. Offer extra breast compressions when baby detaches or switches sides.
- If antibiotics cause side effects, ask about alternatives. Probiotics help counteract gut issues. Drink enough fluids daily so urine stays light yellow.
- Watch for signs of new infection like increased fever, chills, body aches or additional breast redness/ swelling. Promptly report concerns to your provider.
- Sleep enough. Ask for household help. Hydrate and eat small nutritious snacks regularly to keep strength up. Remain active but set limits and rest when possible.
- Expect some setbacks during the path to total resolution. Stay patient and gently persistent.
Recognize that clearing significant breast challenges often feels like a lonely marathon. Silently celebrate your own determination and grit each time you offer that breast yet again to your hungry baby whose sole food source relies on your courageous efforts multiple times daily. Keep inviting helpers to walk this journey with you. Other mothers who’ve traveled here offer the most powerful support. You’ve so got this, even if some days that means just taking the next needed breath through the pain to sustain determination to nourish your child.
Additional Resources and Support
Combating mastitis and blocked ducts requires community support. Connecting with others brings encouragement to persevere when midnight feeds blend into seemingly endless discomfort. Together we discover hope. Here are some places to turn for help:
La Leche League Helpline 1-800-LALECHE (1-800-525-3243) Call anytime 24/7. InfantRisk Center 806-352-2519 Weekdays 8am-5pm central.
Online Groups and Forums:
Facebook Groups like Mastitis and Blocked Ducts Support Group, Breastfeeding Moms Group, La Leche League Groups
- Breastfeeding Support Groups
- Hospital Lactation Consultants
- Local La Leche League Leaders
- Online Parenting Groups
- Postpartum Doulas
Leaning on others normalizes challenges faced, offers empathy, reveals coping strategies, and imparts courage to press on. Together we learn we are not alone.
The Light Ahead
Though the road feels long when pain and engorgement persist, this difficult passage will run its course. Healing lies around the bend. Until then, take tiny forward steps, ask for help when exhausted, prioritize self-care knowing another feeds because you keep choosing to show up. Someday clarity will come on having traveled this hard path and blessing now flows because once you courageously refused to quit. Hang tight. Brighter days will dawn again.